Sofia, Bulgaria — Lili Vrangova and Richard Kanter invited only their closest friends to their wedding here the other day. But Sofian Jewry showed up. Some 500 members of the city’s Jewish community, about one-sixth of the Jews who live in the capital, came to the synagogue one Sunday morning. Uninvited but welcomed, they crowded into the sanctuary of the 91-year-old building, listened to the ceremony on loudspeakers in the courtyard and danced in the aisles.
“They wanted to see a real, traditional wedding,” says Robert Djerassi, who was there. A native Bulgarian, he is assistant country director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee here.
The marriage of Vrangova, Bulgarian and a teacher, and Kanter, an American and commercial attache in the U.S. embassy, was the third Jewish wedding in Sofia in the last decade, since the fall of communism and the re-establishment of open Jewish life, Djerassi said.
“Everyone came,” he says, “from the small children to the very old people. It was a real community holiday, not only a personal holiday.”
The event was the latest sign of a Jewish renaissance in Bulgaria, formerly a hard-line communist country.
Before “the changes,” as Bulgarians call the 1989 end of communist rule (“the previous regime”), “Jewish activity was approximately zero,” says Emil Kalo, president of Shalom-the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria. Shalom replaced the Social, Cultural and Educational Association of the Jews in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, whose main function was to sponsor a permanent exhibition that exaggerated the communist role in saving Bulgarian Jews from the Nazis in World War II.
Today, Jewish life here — largely organized by Shalom and financially supported by the JDC and other overseas Jewish organizations — includes formal and informal classes, youth groups, summer camps, a kosher kitchen in the Beit Ha’am community center and a variety of social service activities for pensioners. There’s even a Ladino Club for senior citizens in the mostly Sephardic community who still speak the Jewish dialect of Spanish.
“We have a full Jewish life,” Kalo says.
One recent morning he led a Shalom board meeting in his office, with a dozen staffers gathered around his desk, reporting on the week’s activities.
Ten years ago, he says, “there were no such meetings — there were no activities.”
Shalom and all Bulgarian Jewish organizations are housed in Beit Ha’am, a six-story building in the center of Sofia that was refurbished and rededicated in 1998 and quickly became a seven-days-a-week home away from home for members of the community. Three bulletin boards in the lobby are filled with notices for upcoming Jewish events — a health club, Israeli dancing, genealogy sessions.
On the recent communal calendar: the dedication of Beit Avot, a Jewish nursing home where three dozen seniors will live. And the opening of a retrospective art exhibit sponsored by the Union of Bulgarian Artists, featuring the works of 80-year-old Sami Bidjerano, who now lives half the year in Israel and paints on Jewish themes.
Next month, in a village 20 minutes from Sofia, Shalom and the JDC will host Esperansa 2000, a biannual “Regional Festival of Sephardi Culture.”
As in the other formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, Jewish life in Bulgaria is slowly returning to normal, to the secular, cultural type of Judaism that was dominant before World War II. (Through the efforts of Libyan-born Rabbi Behor Kahlon, a shochet who comes monthly from Romania, and two physicians trained as mohels, the basics of traditional religious life are available. “You can be shomer Shabbat here,” says Hadara Stanton, who attended Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has served as a JDC volunteer in Sofia for a year.)
WIZO, B’nai B’rith and Hashomer Hatzair are represented here. A public school that has a partnership with the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation offers classes in Hebrew and teaches introductory Judaism in a nondenominational, non-dogmatic way.
As in the other once-communist lands, the intermarriage rate here is high — as much as 90 percent, according to some estimates. “We kept the Jewish identity, even if we had mixed marriages,” says Edi Schvarts, Shalom vice president.
But Bulgaria, where Jews have lived and found refuge from persecution for 2,000 years, has one of the region’s smallest Jewish populations — 2,800, according to the 1999 American Jewish Year Book, or 6,000 to 8,000, including non-Jewish members of intermarried families, say community leaders. The country’s total population is 8 million.
There are 18 official Jewish communities in Bulgaria, ranging from cities like Sofia (estimated Jewish population 1,200 to 3,000), at the base of snow-capped Mount Vitosha, and Plovdiv (about 800 Jews), which recently renovated its 108-year-old synagogue, to towns with a few dozen Jews.
Bulgarian Jewry ranks with Romania’s as the poorest in Eastern Europe, leaders say. While annual inflation has decreased to single digits from the rate of more than 300 percent during a fiscal crisis three years ago, wages are still low and unemployment is still high.
The Jewish community’s economic situation is helped by contributions from Jews abroad and from rental income received on the first of some 300 Jewish buildings that were confiscated under communism and returned in recent years to Jewish ownership.
A group of Jewish women in Sofia formed Bendichos Manos (Ladino for “blessed hands”) in 1997. The “Creative Group for Sephardic and Bulgarian Artistic Crafts” offered art therapy to its members, mostly homebound elderly, and taught them to knit kipas, piecework that was sold to visiting Jews to earn a few levs.
“It made a big difference in their way of life,” says Juliana Farhi, a Bendichos Manos founder.
“We are not poor as a community,” Djerassi of JDC says. “Our members are very poor.”
No Jewish beggars, common in several other Eastern European countries, are evident at Jewish sites in Sofia. The elderly Jews who come to Beit Ha’am daily for a subsidized lunch are dressed neatly, with no outward signs of poverty.
“They are poor but proud,” Djerassi says.
The major difference between Bulgaria’s Jewish community and its neighbors’ is historical — it is a land with little tradition of anti-Semitism, with no horrific memories of the Holocaust.
An ally of Germany in World War II, Bulgaria refused to deport its 48,000 Jews, all of whom survived the war. But the country’s fascist government did permit the deportation to their deaths of 11,000 Jews from occupied parts of Greece and Yugoslavia.
In Sofia’s main Jewish cemetery there is no memorial to Holocaust victims. “The term ‘Holocaust survivor’ does not exist in Bulgaria,” Djerassi says.
While historians disagree on the relative roles in the wartime rescue played by the monarchy, the government and the Orthodox Church, they agree that the rescue reflected Bulgarians’ feelings — they grew up in a multi-ethnic society that included Turks, Gypsies and Jews.
“In Bulgaria there is no anti-Semitism as in the other countries,” says Sara Cohen, executive director of Shalom.
Bulgarian history does contain some examples of small pogroms and other anti-Jewish actions, but most Jews here agree that the examples are rare. A few whitewashed spots on the wall outside the synagogue cover up swastikas scrawled there recently.
The vandalism was probably committed by local skinheads or expatriate Palestinians, Djerassi says. “We’re not scared of the Bulgarians.”
In Plovdiv, the country’s second-biggest city, Jewish and Christian death notices are posted side by side on public walls, and many Jewish homes are marked by large, wrought iron Magen Davids.
In a society so ethnically integrated that there are no distinctive Jewish stereotypes or indigenous Jewish sense of humor, there are few “hidden Jews” — those who affiliated with the Jewish community only after the end of communism. Besides some tacit bars on advancement in the army or political life, there was no penalty for identifying as a Jew before 1989.
“During the communist period we didn’t have open anti-Semitism, as in Poland,” Kalo says.
Bulgarian Jews who left their homeland — 45,000 of 50,000 took part in “the big aliyah” in 1948 and the next few years — unfailingly speak fondly of the country, and return for summer visits in large numbers. (An Israeli rabbi hopes to start a glatt kosher summer resort in eastern Bulgaria this year.)
Why did they leave in the first place?
Bulgarian Jewry was a Zionist community that took Zionism seriously. Veteran members of the community, all of whom still speak fluent Hebrew, brag that Bulgaria, “The mother Zionist country of the Balkans,” was the first country to translate Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State.”
“The Jewish people who immigrated to Israel immigrated because of the Zionist spirit,” says Bulgarian-born Israeli Ambassador David Cohen, “not because they suffered here.”
For Bulgaria’s Jewish leaders, the legacy of a land without anti-Semitism is a mixed blessing. “The big difference,” Kalo says, “is we can attract our youngsters only in a positive way” — emphasizing Judaism’s spiritual heritage. “The [situation] is very different from Poland, Hungary,” where the losses in the Holocaust and contemporary hatred of Jews are frequently invoked.
“The other communities can use a negative way,” Kalo says, adding that “it’s much easier” in Bulgaria. Young members of the community are not afraid of being identified as Jews, and their parents rarely try to dissuade them. “They’re not ashamed to be Jews.”
Anna Hadjimsheva, 17, who comes to the nightly youth club meetings in Beit Ha’am, says she plans to remain in Bulgaria and teach future youngsters about Jewish life. “I saw how special this is for us, and I want to show it to the others.”
Elitsa Savova, 19, was encouraged by her grandmother to join the Jewish community seven years ago. She grew up under communism with no Jewish education and little Jewish identity. Now, she says, she is determined “to preserve the tradition.”
“We learned it a bit later” than Jews in Western countries, Sasova says. “We weren’t too old when we got to know it.”
For today’s Jewish youth in Bulgaria, who came of age in the last days of communism, the regime is a distant memory. “Our generation saw communism, but we didn’t live with it,” says Moni ben-Iosev, 20, director of the Center for Informal Jewish Education, which runs a Sunday school and a Madrichim training program.
The JDC, which returned here in 1990, offers leadership training for young members of the community. Its emphasis, and Shalom’s, is on what Kalo calls the “missing middle generation,” Jews between 30 and 60 years old who are too busy working and raising families to become involved in Jewish activities.
Youngsters and retirees constitute most of the participants at community events.
Shalom sponsors a series of activities geared to the middle generation, including social events, computer training and assistance in finding employment.
The Lauder school held an introductory Kabbalat Shabbat program for families one recent Friday night to teach the parents what the children learn in class.
The official name of the institution is Dimcho Debelianov Hebrew and English Language Elementary School 134, named for a prominent Bulgarian poet, says Becca Lazarova, the Lauder Foundation’s consultant in Sofia, but everyone calls it “the Jewish day school.”
There are 720 students, a third of them Jews, in grades 1 to 8. A high school may be a few years away.
A state school, it is located near Sofia’s former Jewish Quarter, a three-story brick building the foundation helped renovate in a partnership with the government. In addition to the normal curriculum, it offers Hebrew lessons — in a room identified by a mezuzah — and other aspects of Judaism.
“They learn about tzedaka, they learn about mitzvot, they learn what you do on Shabbat,” Lazarova says.
The Jewish classes are mandatory in the lower grades for all students; there are afterschool Jewish activities and challot sent home with students on Friday afternoons and a computer lab supported by the World ORT Union.
There is a long waiting list for admission, Lazarova says. “With this school we can be optimistic for the future of the community.”
Community leaders do not share the fear, expressed in some other Eastern European countries, that their Jewishly educated children will leave, for Israel or the West, once they reach college ago.
“The kids that remain until now won’t make aliyah,” says Emma Mazan, a Plovdiv dentist who founded a Jewish Sunday school nine years age.
Mihaylina Pavlova, editor of the biweekly Evreski Vesti (Jewish News), shares Mazan’s optimism for the future. She has seen the changes in Bulgaria’s Jewish community reflected in the pages of her newspaper.
A decade ago, the paper was a communist propaganda organ, with peripheral news of Jewish interest. Now its contents includes bar/bat mitzvah notices, kosher recipes, Israeli news and listings of Jewish Internet sites.
And in one recent edition, a story about the Vrangova-Kanter wedding.
Steve Lipman’s visit to Bulgaria was sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.